At crunch time, grads showed what makes them tick

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

A set of better halves have bettered their education.

Husband and wife Joe and Emily Stopka graduated Friday at GCU fall commencement, both with master's degrees.

Joe and Emily Stopka didn’t exactly plan it the way it happened, but the Phoenix couple ended up not just getting married, raising two children together and going to school meetings together, they also graduated together Friday during Grand Canyon University’s fall commencement.

Joe, who works for GCU in online enrollment for the military division, received his master’s degree in Psychology with an Emphasis in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and Emily earned her master’s as a Family Nurse Practitioner.

“It’s also our daughter’s birthday. She’s 4,” Emily said, considering the joyful – and frenetic – convergence of events in the couple’s life.

“When we got married, we were both working on our bachelor’s degree separately,” she added.

Emily already is looking toward a doctorate.

“And we are both going to do our bachelor of Christian studies.”

Joe said it was his mom, a lawyer, and his wife who encouraged him to further his education.

“I didn’t want to be left behind,” he said with a smile.

Getting those degrees at the same time wasn't easy for the Stopkas.

“It’s difficult. It’s a little harder on my wife because she’s got clinical hours and things like that. Mine was just mostly schoolwork. But just trying to balance when is she going to have time to study, when am I going to have time to study, and who’s going to, like, entertain our kids. … I remember both of us staying up late numerous nights after putting the kids to bed, being up until 1 in the morning and having to get up at 5 in the morning for work.”

But, in considering the hard work, Emily looks at the end game:

“Am I going to be happy just sitting around watching TV, or am I going to be happy getting a degree?”

Bringing hope back to the tribe

Valaura Imus of Phoenix, who is a member of the Hopi tribe, also put in some hard work getting her degree, a master’s in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Legal Studies.

Brandon Nahsonhoya helps fiancee Valaura Imus put on her graduation regalia at fall commencement Friday. Imus, who is Hopi, earned her master's degree in criminal justice. Her mom, Carol James (center), also attended graduation.

Imus has three children, the youngest of whom is 6. She works full-time in the Criminal Investigation Office. She does national work as a supervisory victim specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, serving a three-state program. And she was recently appointed an ad hoc member for a task force on human trafficking and developed a victim-assistance academy for Indian country.

“With all of those, with work and my family and going to school, it was a struggle,” she said.

Imus said she was motivated to get her degree to be an example to her children, and she was inspired by her mother, grandmother and grandfather. Her grandfather was a tribal chairman. It was his lifelong dream, she said, for his family to get their education.

It’s her dream to go back and help the Hopis. So many have to leave to pursue their dreams, which takes them away from their own culture and practices, she said.

“Being Native American and the financial restraints we do have, there is a possibility that we can pursue our dreams," said Valaura.

Just one more challenge: Imus is planning her wedding to Brandon Nahsonhoya.

Danielle Tosa (center) of Jemez Puebo, N.M., received her master's degree in psychology with an emphasis in life coaching at fall commencement Friday. She will start a new job with Native American Professional Parent Resources in Albuquerque, N.M.

Danielle Tosa, also a Native American, drove in with her family from Jemez Pueblo, N.M., for commencement to receive her master’s of science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Life Coaching.

“It’s something that I have looked forward to since I was young, so it’s been a childhood dream of mine.”

Tosa, who wore a yellow-and-blue Native American necklace from family members, said she is a first-generation college graduate who found herself on the GCU campus for just the second time.

Tosa just left her job as an intervention coordinator for Pueblo Jemez social services and, with her new degree in hand, will start a new job with Native American Professional Parent Resources in Albuquerque, N.M.

Devoted to excellence

Frantz Dorestant Jr. traveled from New York to Arizona and the GCU campus for the first time Friday with his wife, Dr. S. Shree Dorestant, infant daughter, Autumn Rei, and mom, Sandra.

Frantz Dorestant Jr. has a lot going on in his life. He has a 3-month-old daughter, is a chief specialist for a hospital in New York and received his master's degree Friday. His mom, Sandra (left), attended with his wife, Dr. Shree Dorestant.

He completed requirements for his master’s in Nursing with an Emphasis in Leadership in Health Care Systems.

“I am two years into my beautiful marriage. We have a 3-month-old daughter. At that time, I was finishing up with my last course before I was done with my matriculation, and it was a lot to handle being a new father, being a husband, being a son, being a brother. It was a bit much,” he said of the road to get his degree. “And plus, I’m also the chief specialist for a hospital in New York, so I run the entire 300-plus beds in regard to my field. It’s a lot.

“But I feel if you are dedicated and if you are devoted to excellence, and you are steadfast within your spiritual growth, then you know that you can be able to go and rest your head upon the Lord to go and get your degree, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Dorestant wants to open up his own clinic.

He has been inspired, he said, by his wife, an adjunct professor with GCU who pushes him to achieve more.

“We can do it together, and all things are possible in Christ,” he said, adding how education is something no one can take away from you: "You need it to go unlock the doors to every single avenue in your personal and professional life."

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at (602) 639-7901 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


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